*Some context on this post: I wrote it in my last year of college and never published it. I’m releasing it now in 2023 as I needed this advice myself.
*Goals are powerful. Driving. Motivating. Goals put everything into perspective and make our lives feel as though things fit into place. Goal setting helps us visualize the way to where we want to go.
The picturesque view at the top of the proverbial mountain is always worth continuing to strive towards, even if the climb can get increasingly difficult and demoralizing.
At least, this is the message that is loudly broadcasted in the entrepreneurship space, in STEM, in management, and in schools and households across the country and around the world. As a recent engineering graduate and aspiring entrepreneur, I never considered goal-oriented thinking as detrimental in any form or fashion. For as long as I can remember, I have viewed goal setting as unequivocally positive. Growing up in a South Asian household, my parents and family exalted emphatic ambition. Posters plastered on walls in classrooms throughout my childhood constantly used the imagery of an intrepid adventurer casually summiting a seemingly insurmountable peak. Even at university, lecturers and professors frequently encouraged students to achieve their maximum by envisioning all that was possible. Throughout my life, in response to failure, as I am sure many others have also been told to do, I doubled down in my goal-setting and gritted my teeth, determined to “continue the climb.”
Only through recent experiences have I come to learn that there is a dark side to goal-setting that is entirely neglected in most discussions. Goals can end up decreasing motivation and negatively impacting one’s self-confidence and self-worth. I personally have been a victim of some of the covert and pernicious side-effects of excessively goal oriented thinking.
I come from a family and culture where mental health issues are largely viewed more as a choice in perspective. In the last year of my undergraduate electrical and computer engineering degree at the University of Texas at Austin, I suffered from a bout of severe depression. I attempted to keep a positive, goal oriented outlook, as recommended by my professors, academic advisors, family, and even my therapists and counselors. I consistently re-doubled in my efforts to goal set despite my repeated and regular failures. Much to my chagrin, this process became a feedback loop. One of failure, disappointment, renewed melancholy and self-hatred, momentarily replenished motivation, newer, more ambitious goals, and failure again.
Our culture of goals neglects to realize that they are as dangerous as they are powerful. Goals are, by their very nature, necessarily incremental, and as a young ambitious student attempting to overcome something I denied was a real condition, overly general, nonspecific goals became a near death sentence.
In a working paper by the Harvard Business School titled Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting , the positives of goal setting are described as having been largely overstated. The paper details the damaging side effects in the context of management and organizations, including reduced intrinsic motivation in employees. Goals are defined as “ a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.”
In personal goal setting, the side effects can be equally hazardous. After setting lofty goals and feeling good about them, we often fail in our pursuit of achieving them. And in that failure, in reluctantly returning to normalcy, we are either subtly or significantly impacted by how we have failed to hold ourselves up to our own standards. In school and work circumstances, not living up to our educational or professional goals for ourselves can be systematic. As we continue to fail, we pile on more goals to try to regain control and force structure. Many side-effects can result in this cycle, the most potent of which is a general loss of motivation — a key ingredient for depression. This cycle is especially vicious for those who are depressed. Goals become more aspirational and less specific, and we pile on even more goals in an attempt to make up for our mistakes.
Nonspecific, generalized goals have been linked to depression . In a study conducted in 2013, participants with clinical depression and those in a control group were asked to make lists of goals. “We found that the goals that people with clinical depression listed lacked a specific focus, making it more difficult to achieve them and therefore creating a downward cycle of negative thoughts.” Though it is unclear what comes first, there is no doubt that consistently setting overly ambitious goals that are increasingly difficult to attain cannot be helpful to one’s overall mood and morale.
What is clear is that goal setting is no doubt useful, as indicated by its excessive over-prescription. But in a culture where rates of depression among STEM students and engineers have been drastically increasing, we are in dire need of a new, more kind mindset around goal-oriented thinking.
In my journey through university and as a new ‘adult’, I found that setting goals carefully and compassionately has not only helped me to achieve my goals, but has helped me to gradually overcome my depression. In my last semester at UT Austin, I was fortunate enough to find myself in Professor Kristin Neff’s class on mindfulness and self-compassion. Unbeknownst to me, I registered for a class led by one of the foremost experts and pioneers in the field of self-compassion research.
A growing body of research indicates that self-compassion is linked to greater motivation. Self-compassion has been associated with increased personal initiative — the desire to reach one’s full potential.
Self-compassionate people are also more likely to adopt “mastery goals,” which focus on learning and mastering material to increase competence, and less likely to adopt “performance goals,” which are primarily concerned with succeeding to make a favorable impression on others.
While self-compassionate people have performance standards that are as high as those who are harshly self-critical, they don’t get as upset when they don’t reach their goals. As a result, self-compassionate people have less performance anxiety and engage in fewer self-defeating behaviors such as procrastination.
Not only are self-compassionate people less likely to fear failure, but when they do fail they’re more likely to pick themselves up and try again.
Sometimes, the proper way to deal with things is to accept failure and be kind.
It is time to change the culture around excessively ambitious, goal driven thinking and move towards a culture of self acceptance.
After much inner contemplation, my own personal motto has become:
Treat yourself like your own best friend. Be better than yourself yesterday, but kind to yourself today.
Harvard, Goals, a Prescription Medication
Generalized Goals and Depression